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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                        3^
slipped his hand inside his tunic, felt the rustling envelopes
and breathed a sigh of relief. He took Olya's letter and,
paying no heed to the story his enthusiastic young friend
was telling, cautiously tore a strip from the envelope.
Just then a rocket spluttered. A red, fiery serpent shot
into the sky, arched over the airfield and died out, leav-
ing a grey, slowly dissolving trail. The airmen sprang to
their feet. Alexei slipped the letter inside his tunic with-
out having been able to read a word of it. In opening the
envelope he had felt something hard in addition to the
writing-paper. Flying at the head of his flight along the
now familiar course he felt the envelope now and again,
wondering what was in it.
The day on which the tank army breached the enemy's
positions marked the beginning of a very busy period for
the Guards Fighter Aircraft Wing in which Alexei now
served. Squadron after squadron flew to the area of the
breach. Before one had time to land after battle another
was in the air, and the fuel trucks were already rushing
towards the machines just returned. The petrol flowed into
the empty tanks in generous streams. A quivering haze
hovered over the heated engines like that over a field
after a warm, summer rain. The airmen did not leave
their cockpits even to take their dinner; it was brought
to them in aluminium billycans. But nobody was in the
mood to eat, the food stuck in their throats.
When Captain Cheslov's squadron landed again and
the machines, after they had been taxied to the wood,
were being refuelled, Meresyev sat smiling in his cockpit,
conscious of a pleasant, aching tiredness, impatiently
looking up into the sky and hurrying the fillers. He
yearned to be in the scrap again, to put himself to the test
once more. He frequently slipped his hand inside his
tunic and felt the rustling envelopes, but in this situation
he was not in the mood to read.
It was not before the evening, when dusk was begin-
ning to fall, that the crews were dismissed. Meresyev
walked to his quarters not by the short cut through the
wood, as he usually did, but by the longer road through
the weed-covered field. He wanted to collect his thoughts,
to rest after the din and clatter, after all the swiftly
changing impressions of that seemingly endless day.